review of Renfrew & Zubrow, eds., The Ancient Mind [Book Review]

In 1990, a conference was held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, to explore the prospects for a new school of research: cognitive archeology. The fruits of that conference are now published; they are uneven in quality, but provocative. Archeology at its best is detective work that rivals anything in science or fiction--from Crick and Watson to Holmes and Watson. At its worst, it is imagination run wild, underconstrained speculations that often have the added vice of permanently distorting the data, through erroneous "restorations" or just spuriously authoritative labels that then make alternative interpretations of those objects and sites all but unthinkable. It is hard to resist the gravitational pull of a good story, apparently, especially when one has just spent a long hot summer and a sizeable grant (or a lifetime and a fortune) painstakingly wresting an unprepossessing pile of ancient leftovers from the earth. One has to make something from these fragments, if not the lost city of Atlantis, then at least some exciting conclusions about the exotic habits, beliefs or rituals of the people who made them. So it is not surprising that the early romantic excesses of archeology--Agamemnon's tomb and all that--provoked a positivistic reformation movement. Parallel to the behaviorists' efforts to turn their field of psychology into hard science with all the trappings, the "processual" school of archeology demanded scrupulous data-gathering and forbade all but the most rigorously constructed interpretations, echoing Lloyd Morgan's Canon of Parsimony: thou shalt not impute more Mind than is strictly necessary to account for the data. One could venture cautious conclusions about the diet, tools and building materials, and size of the groups, but precious little else--next to nothing, of course, about what or how these ancient people thought
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